Ben and Philip Bator love it when the trains roll past their home. On a clear night the brothers can see the lights from the freight car line stretch all the way into the heart of Detroit from their downtown apartment on the 14th floor of The Fifth Royal Oak
That's where the Bator brothers, who make up two-thirds of Texts From Last Night
, do most of their work on one of the most popular blogs in the world. Ben co-founded the website with his college friend Lauren Leto in early 2009 as a side project where friends could trade humorous text messages. That quickly turned into Generation Y's gonzo journal of nightlife gone wrong, with millions of followers, a book, mobile apps and, now, a TV show in the works.
The Michigan State University graduates hired Ben's little brother Philip (also a Spartan) as Texts From Last Night's editor. Today the Bator brothers (Beverly Hills natives) work, play and often do both at the same time from a gangster pad most other twenty-somethings can only dream of. Leto (from Grosse Pointe) moved to New York City last spring but all three run the business and brand from laptops in high-rise apartments, Brooklyn co-working spaces, and iPhones that regularly skip between LAX, SFO, and NYC's JFK and LGA before coming home to DTW.
"I come back here and it's home," Ben says. "My parents might kill me for saying this, but people will say, 'Oh, its because of the family.' Kind of. I really like this area. I like having four seasons. I like having a break. When I am in those other places, I always feel like I am working or networking. Here, I am still doing it but it's home. I can come here and not have to worry about what's going on in New York or L.A. I am just here, and I love it."
And why downtown Royal Oak's premiere high-rise instead of a McMansion in one of Metro Detroit's nameless cul-de-sacs in BFE township?
"I like that there will be days at a time when I am not in my car," Philip says. "The building is great. The location is even better."
The Bator brothers recently invited Metromode's
Jon Zemke into their "offices" to talk text messages, pickles, and even Kwame Kilpatrick. Texts From Last Night seems like a pretty easy business to run. Is this true, and if not, what are the more difficult aspects of the business?
Ben: It's great that it seems like it's an easy business, because that makes it seem like we're doing something right. I am proud to make it look easy, but there are definite challenges.
Philip: Stay calm on the surface and paddle like hell underneath. I would imagine the barriers to entry for a website business like TFLN are relatively low. Does that scare you?
Ben: No. We were fortunate to be one of the first people in this space. We know the industry really well. We're pretty vigilant about what's out there.
Ben, you skipped law school to run TFLN. Were your elders afraid you made a mistake?
Ben: My dad was overjoyed. Lauren's parents were a little horrified. Maybe not horrified but…
Ben: Everything happened so quickly at the time that you're in it and you think, 'This could be all over tomorrow. I just dropped out of law school. Shit.'
Philip: (laughs) We have a book. Who cares.
Ben: Overall, everyone has been supportive. One of my grandmothers knows and is proud. The other grandmother doesn't know what I do.
Philip: That same grandma will be like, 'So, what else are you doing?'
Ben: Well, you did say at 4-years-old that you wanted to be a doctor, so that's on you. You are quite particular about advertising. What was your philosophy when you started the site and how has it evolved?
Ben: We decided we didn't want to have any ads on the site from the beginning. We let the traffic grow to the point where advertisers we would want to click on came to us. We did attract quality advertisers that people who read this site wanted to go to, like movies or American Apparel or Groupon. What do you consider your ideal advertiser for the site?
Ben: Someone who is creative and wants to make ads that appeal to users because it's a great ad. Which do you absolutely refuse to consider?
Ben: The tummy fat ones. I can't stand those.
Philip: In just 90 days… Or like male-enhancement pills. Lauren went to NYC and you both stayed here. What could Metro Detroit learn from your decision to stay and her decision to leave?
Ben: It's not something Detroit as a city can learn but people living in Detroit can learn. People don't move to New York because it's easier to live there. New York is hard. It's hard for people to get into the mindset here that people in New York or L.A. are always attacking and keeping focused on the goal. TFLN is a business that doesn't employ lots of people in an office building. Would there be more businesses like yours here if there were more non-traditional work spaces, such as the Urbane Apts co-working space in Birmingham or Tech Brewery in Ann Arbor?
Ben: Absolutely. There is a base of collaboration and serendipity that is necessary for starting a company. Having those spaces is hugely helpful for fostering this type of an industry. Is there a local company that you look at and think, "Man, Michigan is lucky to have them here?"
Ben: McClure's Pickles
Philip goes behind the counter and takes out a jar of McClure's Pickles: Would you like a pickle? (everyone laughs)
Ben: We're totally lucky to have a company like that because Detroit is on every jar.
Philip: It's a great example. They have grown so much in the past year. Yet, everything they do is so very small and personal. You recently mocked the idea that "texting is slaughtering language" in a Tweet. Electronic communication has had a huge impact on the English language. Do you think this trend is for the better or for the worse?
Ben: It's a double-edged sword. In some way, yes, the language is being slaughtered. (laughs)
Philip: In many ways.
Ben: Yes, in many ways. My spelling is now horrific because my iPhone will correct it.
Philip: There was a story recently that said teens are writing more now than they have in the past 15-20 years. It's a more bastardized version of writing, but it still counts. The question is how are we going to react to it.
Ben: We ate Cheetos happily for years and now people are rallying for this whole slow food, organic food movement. Ten years from now I could use LOL then be ostracized. People will say, 'I am laughing.'
Philip: Flip the slow food into the slow language. There is no way to predict where this will go.
Ben: I remember someone saying cursive was their hardest subject in school. Do they even teach cursive anymore?Electronic communication channels have played a large role in Egypt's political upheaval. Did you ever think something as simple as a text message or tweet could have such an impact?
Philip: Initially, no.
Ben: Given the right forum, I always thought it could. People need tools to organize and communicate. Twitter just happens to be the most effective tool at this time. The fact that they turned off the Internet shows how unbelievable it all is. It's interesting that when the written word changed history it was through books like the Bible. Now it's sentences or incomplete thoughts.
Ben: When you look at it from the long spectrum of existence, that's when it's mind blowing.
Philip: Especially when you think about all of the barriers there used to be to achieving your words in print.
Ben: Now we have 6-year-olds tweeting about Beiber. (laughs) Had you asked me that question in 1998, I would have said no.
Philip: You would still be waiting for AOL to connect. The success of your site relies on content generated by others, content you don't pay for. Do you ever have ethical concerns about your business model?
Ben: No. There is a reason we have to pay people to look through all of the stuff we get. We're going out on a limb saying, 'This is funny. Read it.' We're not making a bunch of huge Wiki Leaks dumps. Do ever wonder why people are so willing to let you use their content?
Philip: Everyone wants that brief flash of fame.
Ben: Someone tweeted yesterday, 'Yes, my second Texts From Last Night post.' I thought, 'Wow, you got two. That's not easy.' What advice would you give Kwame Kilpatrick when it comes to text etiquette?
Ben: Don't do it on the work phone.
Philip: I have friends who have gotten second phones just because of that.
Ben: And they're not even holding office.
Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Metromode and Concentrate. He conducted and condensed this interview. His last feature was Old School Meet New School: A Q&A with Brand Labs.